Re-forging a Healthy Relationship with Nature

When I was studying science at university in the 1970s, the realisation had hardly started to dawn on anyone that modern man (and woman) had managed to create a serious problem in relation to nature: the science of ecology was beginning to be taken seriously, and documentaries were being made about heavy-industry polluting rivers and lakes; there was also concern about air quality in major cities, and about pesticide residues making their way up food chains; but, overall, few people questioned the notion that human beings had embarkd on an exponential curve of progress at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and that the answers to most of the problems with which people had grappled over the millennia, such as illness, hunger, and poverty, had been found. It was assumed, even amongst people in the emerging environmental movement, that one more push in the right direction was all that was required to resolve the few problems which remained, allowing everyone to live in relative comfort, and prosperity, without having to do much work.

That vision has become increasingly strained in the intervening years; it has become ever-more apparent that the relationship between people and nature was not just going through a difficult patch – it had completely broken down. Climate change caused by a fossil-fuel-based global economy is, at the moment, the focus of most concern, but mass-extinction of plant and animal species, loss of soil fertility, the accumulation of non-recyclable wastes (some of it radioactive), and air and water pollution, are all now acknowledged to be problems caused by the modern economy that have no obvious solution.

Whilst, on the one hand, it is to be welcomed that these problems have finally been recognised, we ought to be worried that there has been hardly a pause for reflection before scientists, engineers, corporations, and politicians have come up with solutions. We are being asked to believe that there is a simple technological solution to the environmental problems that modern technologies have created. This proposed solution involves spending vast amounts of money rebuilding existing infrastrucure, converting everything to electric, putting complet trust in advanced computer technologies, and, if possible, having everyone living in an urban environment, where their carbon footprint can be monitored and controlled.

No one seems to have considered that, logically, there must always have been a serious flaw in our collective understanding of how nature works, from the start of the Industrial Revolution, for us to have ever been able to do it so much damage; and that maybe we ought to take a step back and re-evaluate what we know, or what we think we know, before blundering on any further.

This is something that is brought home to one quite acutely when one finds oneself in a classroom in front of a group of young people. In our society, children spend less time outdoors, in nature, and more time indoors than ever before. Fear of accidents, and possible litigation, lead teaching staff to eradicate as much potential danger from these controlled indoor environments as possible, and, to compound the problem, children do not live in a world in which their basic needs are met by nature; instead, things that they want come, mysteriously, from shops and from the world of adults.

This creates a disconnection from the natural world, which as well as being detrimental to the physical and emotional development of children, also affects their ability to understand and evaluate what they are being taught. As a teacher, one would prefer that children already knew something about the way in which the world works, before you try to give them explanations of why it works that way, but this is not the case for pupils that have been so over-protected. Children who have no direct experience of nature have no way of telling what is a normal fact of nature (that an oak tree grows from and acorn, for example) and what is fantastical and made up, such as some of the things that they may see in cartoons or on television. Exacerbating the problem, children brought up in a man-made environment will automatically assume that nature behaves in the same way as the world with which they are familiar, and will not understand the difference between a living system, and a static system.

As a teacher, you find that children in this situation react in one of two ways, they either don’t understand what you are talking about, and switch off, and do not do very well in their exams; or else, they do not understand what you are talking about, but, for some reason, want to do well in school, and learn how to answer the exam questions in the expected manner. These latter go on to become the academics and engineers of the future.

Assuming that no one would consciously set about changing the climate of our planet, and that no one would consciously embark on a programme to drive the majority of species on the planet to extinction, it must be the case that these things are all happening by mistake. Which means that the people who built our economies and our institutions did not have the understanding of the natural world that they thought they had. Given the way that we have set up our education system, this should not come as a surprise. Children do not have a chance to find out where they fit in to the world of nature, and become detached from the basic realities of life from a very young age. When they grow up, some of these same children then go on to take up key roles in government, business, and universities, where they suddenly find themselves confronted with world-threatening problems, caused by centuries-old misunderstandings of how nature works, for which they are expected to find rapid solutions. Logically, however, it would make sense for people to recognise that they do not have a method for determining whether what they believe to be true really is true, and what they believe to be false, really is false, and what is even more difficult, to work out to what extent things that they believe to be true, may be only partially true, or may only represent one small part of the truth.

Finding Your Place in the Ecosystem

Our Complicated Relationship with the Natural World

The great triumph of modern technology, and the global economy, is that it has managed to insulate large sections of mankind from the rigours on nature: people living in developed countries do not have to worry about being too hot or too cold, or being hungry, or being stranded with nothing to drink. They have no fear of predators, and do not have to regulate their lives by the rising and setting of the sun, or by the changing of the seasons.

In a sense, one could say that history is the story of the human struggle against the hardships of nature, and finding ways to live in relative comfort, no matter where one happens to find oneself on the face of the globe (in spite of the fact that an individual human being is one of the most vulnerable creatures in the known world). According to current understanding, homo sapiens evolved in the equatorial regions of the African continent, but, even there, our hairless bodies, and lack of sharp teeth and claws mean that the chances of a single person being able to survive for long on their own are quite slim. People derive their strength from being able to work together in groups, and to their ability to develop technologies adapted to whatever environment in which they are living.

The larger the human group, and the more complex the technology, the less subject people are to the day-to-day demands of nature. People who live by hunting and gathering, may have very sophisticated social structures and be skilled in the art of survival, but the way that they live from day to day is strongly determined by climate, the seasons, geography, and other basic realities of nature. The same applies to people who live primarily by managing flocks and herds of domesticated, or semi-domesticated animals. However, in agricultural societies, the situation is different. A small number of people can produce enough food for a larger number of people, people can have specialist trades and professions, and population density can grow. This allows the development of cities, and the creation of urban environments in which people can live in relative comfort, even in geographical locations to which human beings might not be physically adapted. Our notion of history has always been a study of the rise and fall of these city-based civilisations, mapping how different powers have emerged, grown to a certain size, spreading their influence over a wider geographical area, and then going into decline, to be replaced by a new, emerging, power which then follows the same trajectory.

Something that is generally lacking in this study of history is a consideration of what impact the separation from nature has upon the young people growing up in city-based civilisations. Human societies and human technologies evolve over periods of hundreds of years, but human beings do not. We are essentially the same creatures (in terms of biology) as those who were living by their wits hundreds of thousands, or millions, of years ago.

To a large extent a human being is born without an instinctive knowledge of the skills that they need to live in any particular place, or in a particular culture: almost everything has to be learnt. Originally, just in order to survive in a potentially hostile world, people would have had to develop a range of attributes from a young age: physical strength, agility, awareness, intelligence, etc., with the natural world posing a real threat to children who failed to learn. As parents, and carers, it is natural that we should try to protect children from the dangers and hardships that we may perceive in the natural world, but if we are too successful in doing so, we isolate children from the learning environment which they need in order to develop to their full potential.

A further problem is presented by the fact that complex societies (such as our own) require at least some of their members to master abstruse ideas relating to legal systems, science, religion, and government; these are subjects one step removed from the natural world. These were the areas which schools were originally meant to address – educating a select few from each new generation in the art of government. Historically, these educational programmes met with varying degrees of success; generally it is not easy to train people to be on the one hand physically strong and capable in practical activities, and, on the other hand, to also be skilled in administrative tasks. The marked historical tendency is for ruling elites to become weak and unmotivated after a few generations, and for power to shift to a new group of people who had had a more rigorous upbringing. Meanwhile, in advanced civilisations previous to our own, all the non-academic knowledge which helped to make life possible – farming techniques, textile working, metal-working, building techniques, engineering, etc. – were passed on within village communities by people still living in relative proximity to nature.

This was the case in Europe in the centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution: the high degree of urbanisation and centralised government that had prevailed in much of Europe in the time of the Roman Empire was avoided, but people still enjoyed many of the benefits of an advanced society. Most people lived in villages, local communities were strong, and most people were involved in farming, but there was still a legal system, and an advanced level of technology, as evidenced by the cathedrals and other public buildings dating from that period. Over the course of time, power shifted between different groups of competing aristocrats, but the essence of European civilisation was preserved by ordinary people working together on a local level, with day-to-day life dictated by the passing of the seasons, and the cycles of nature.

The factor that precipitated a change to this way of life would seem to have been Europeans stumbling across the New World: the exploration and exploitation of the New World led to creation of new global trade routes, and then, in order to supply these new trading routes, the industrialisation of manufacturing and agriculture. This in turn caused people to migrate from the countryside to the towns breaking the connection between people and the world of nature.

This process has continued to the present day with the result that a greater percentage of the world’s human population lives in an urban environment than ever before. Inevitably, people living in cities have different ideas from people living in the countryside – and develop different technologies, that, from their perspective represent progress and make life (in the city) better.

Over the past few centuries people have developed machines to grow their food for them, make clothes for them, and do most of the work that people used to do for ourselves, and for many years this was considered by people around the world to be a good and desirable thing. Now, it turns out that this technology is incompatible with the world of nature, and that unless something fairly drastic is done in the not-to-distant future, our technologies might render our world uninhabitable.

Re-forging a Healthy Relationship with Nature




The Inherent Difficulty in Changing the Way in Which we Educate Ourselves

Criticism of schools is nothing new. People have been complaining about the inhumanity of boarding schools ever since they were first created, and most people have questioned the efficacy of one aspect or another of the schools that they themselves attended at some time in their lives. This has led to innumerable attempts to devise new and better systems of education for our children, but the school system keeps rolling on, becoming more all-encompassing for each new generation, rather than less.

The problem is that schools, technology, and the way that we live and work, have evolved together, and are now inextricably linked. For most of human history, for most people, schools either did not exist at all, and in civilisations that did have schools, only a small minority of children ever went to them. However, in 1700s Europe the role of school took on a new form, and ever since then school has gained in significance for each successive generation. For my parents’ generation, for example, it was still possible for teenagers who left school with a simple school-leaving certificate to find their way into professions such as law and accountancy; and there were apprenticeships available for young people who gained no school-based qualifications at all, allowing them to become skilled craftspeople. By the time I went to school, much of that had changed; the eleven-plus exam was seen to be something that determined your rest-of-life chances, if you passed, you went to grammar school and had a chance of going to university, which at that time almost guaranteed a well-paid, middle-class job; if you failed, you went to secondary-modern school, with no obvious route open to into any of the well-paid professional jobs. Since then, the trend has continued, children start school earlier, and stay on for longer, employment prospects for teenagers are getting less and less all the time, and some form of further education is almost obligatory. Almost all forms of employment, access to credit, housing, and social status have now become closely linked to qualifications gained via the education system.

In this environment, things become very difficult for anyone trying to start any sort of alternative school that seeks to pursue a different curriculum from the mainstream, and does not focus on examination success. If pupils are drawn from reasonably-well-off middle-class families, they soon start to ask the teachers why they are not being taught the things that are necessary for success in the modern world. In my experience, this pupil-based criticism intensifies from one year to the next as pupils become more and more aware that their school is deviating from the norm. Very few teachers are able to deal with this criticism, and, no matter what principles inspired the original idea behind the school, the temptation is to simply coach children to pass exams, albeit, perhaps, in a slightly more friendly atmosphere than that available in other, less elite, establishments.

On the other hand, if children are drawn from a wider spectrum, then financing will automatically become the major problem, because low-income families cannot afford school fees, and, as a result, there will not be money available to pay the teachers. The pupils still want to know why they are being made to go to school and if their school years are going to be the route to a good job, and, in addition, point out that if their teachers are poor, then the school is not likely to be able to help them to earn a living.

Another major problem is the pre-conceived idea that we all have (probably due to our own schooldays) of how teaching should be conducted. We automatically believe that things have to be explained to children, that they have to listen, and that they have to respect the agenda set by the person who has taken on the teaching role. In mainstream schools, the fact that this method of teaching is ineffective is not an immediate problem: the teacher stands up and talks, most of the children find a way of letting it pass over their heads, very little is learnt, but it does not matter, because a uniform level of failure has been established, and underachievement replicated across the whole education system. Children put up with it, because they know that everyone else is being subjected to the same thing, and, therefore, assume that it is normal. In addition, there are systems in place to deal with children who do not, or cannot, conform – psychologists, social workers, suspension, expulsion, special schools, etc. – and when children see their classmates being subjected to corrective measures, they are further encouraged to simply do what they are told, and not complain. However, in an alternative teaching environment this back-up system is not available; anyone trying to employ the standard stand-at-the-front-of-the-room-and-explain-things teaching method soon has to confront the fact that their pupils are not learning anything.

This can be a particular difficulty in a home-schooling environment: children tell their parents to stop using a ‘teachery voice’, break down in tears when a parent tries too hard to make them learn something, or simply demand to be allowed to go to school, where at least they are able to merge in with a class of children who are all underperforming.

Added to this, people are generally quite young when they become parents, and, as such, have not had time to come to an appreciation of the full extent of the various deficiencies in their own education. This can put them in the situation of not knowing what to teach their children, nor how to teach it, but still believing that, with a little imagination on their part they can start a new sort of school or form a home-schooling group that will work smoothly and with which their children will be perfectly happy.

Thus, most attempts to improve upon school, or to avoid school, though well-meaning, have run into difficulties, for similar reasons. In the absence of a mechanism to learn from other people’s mistakes, successive generations of parents that would like to offer their children something better, fall into the same traps as their predecessors.

Meanwhile, the school system itself has continued on its path of becoming more coercive, more reliant on a standardised curriculum, more focussed on examinations, assessments, and qualifications, and more centralised. More than ever, its justification is that if you want to get a good job when you are older, then you have to do well at school.

Efforts to create a more child-friendly alternative to school have tended to involve modifying the curriculum, or the teaching environment, keeping a child at home altogether, increasing the teacher to pupil ratio, or modifying the decision-making processes in a school.

What is required is an educational programme that sets our current economic model in a wider perspective, from the outset. Whilst the importance of being able to earn a living should definitely be acknowledged, a child’s education should also give them an understanding of the relative unimportance of the man-made world when compared to the universe as a whole.

Our Complicated Relationship with the Natural World

The Consequences of an Education System that does not Encourage People to Think for Themselves

The basic model for schools, starting with crèches, and continuing into nursery schools, primary schools, and secondary schools, is to have one adult looking after several children. The advantage of this (given our current system of employment) is obvious, as it not only provides work for child minders, but it also frees mothers (and fathers) to take up paid employment. Children, however, have to accept being in a more structured environment than would be normal at home. They have to respect start times, break times, and organised activities; opportunities to talk to adults and interact with them on a one-to-one basis are reduced. As they progress through the school system, the degree of regulation increases, particularly for those who are destined for success.

By the time that they start secondary school, children are expected to be well advanced in their reading and writing skills, and their work has to conform to strict rules of spelling and grammar. They then embark on a pre-arranged study of a set of subjects, covering science, mathematics, history, languages, geography, etc. People who never did well at school, are often unaware of the amount of pressure to conform that is applied to the more high-flying pupils.

This pressure is intensified as pupils vie with each other for places in the most elite universities, with a lifetime’s prospects hanging on getting a good mark in a series of examinations sat when they are just seventeen or eighteen-years-old. The opportunity for self-expression in this environment is close to zero. Pupils who disrupt the focus on work, or who take up time by questioning the exam-course dogmas, are quickly removed from the class.

Universities like to portray themselves as the direct descendants of the centres of learning that emerged in the Middle Ages, and which were responsible for the Renaissance of European culture. However, in their early days, these universities did not have final exams, corporate funding, or student fees. Today’s institutions are quite different, the more prestigious they are, the more important to them it is that their graduates fit seamlessly into one or other of the key institutions of the modern era: usually government or business. Freedom of thought is not favoured in such circumstances.

The lack of freedom in the education system, therefore, takes many forms. In the early years, it involves physical constraints, children are confined to specific places at specific times, are made to conform to group behaviour patterns (sitting at desks, etc.), and do not have the freedom to talk or to ask questions that they would enjoy in other circumstances. Later on in the education system, people have more freedom over the details of how they spend their time, but the pressure to conform to a particular view of politics, economics, science, medicine, philosophy or religion becomes more intense as time goes on.

The consequences can be felt in every area of life. Our major institutions of government and commerce are staffed by people who have graduated from an education system which suppresses personal initiative, originality, and, even more importantly, warmth and kindness between people in charge and those under their control.

Even more significant is the tendency to learn by example. Because schools are run on the basis of someone in authority at the front of the room telling everyone else what to do, and conflicts are resolved by that person making arbitrary decisions, backed up by the power to punish and humiliate the offender, and, if necessary, permanently exclude them from the class, people assume that it is appropriate to use the same techniques in their own lives when they grow up. This has contributed to the fracturing of family life, the breakdown of communication between generations, and the disintegration of communities. The institutions that have grown up to replace local communities are almost exclusively hierarchical, with authority concentrated at the top; individuals are disempowered and their role reduced to that of simple consumers of products and services.

Just as serious, however, is the way in which our society now acts in its relationship with nature. Whereas at one time this relationship was co-operative, it has gradually, over time, become more and more authoritarian. People have spent the past few hundred years developing bigger machines and more aggressive technologies to make nature behave in the way that they think they want. Industrial-scale agriculture has transformed the countryside so that it yields more of certain crops, with fewer people involved, meaning more people can move to the town. Every time a problem emerges, rather than stepping back and seeing it as a warning sign that something may be wrong, a way is found to force nature to conform to our pre-conceived designs: bigger ploughs, a new range of toxic chemicals to spray on the ground, clearing another stretch of virgin forest, laying more concrete, a greater dependence on of industrial fertilisers, etc. This brutal approach to the natural world is leading us to the brink of disaster: climate change, soil depletion, species loss, contamination of the ocean, micro-plastics, and industrial pollutants are now acknowledged to pose a threat the continued existence of many creatures on the planet, amongst them human beings. Given the educational programme through which they have progressed, it is perhaps not surprising that the solution to these problems proposed by those in charge of our government and business institutions is to press on a little further with the same programme that has brought us to this point. One further technological breakthrough, we are asked to believe, and nature will finally be under control, and behave in accordance with our wishes.

Alternatively, and more logically perhaps, one could suggest that what is needed is a return to a more respectful relationship with both the natural world, and with each other: a relationship of equals giving and receiving; the problem is that our education has not trained to work in that way, and to do so, would involve us having to change the way in which we view the world.

The Inherent Difficulty in Changing the Way in Which we Educate Ourselves

Authority in the Classroom

When I started working as a secondary-school teacher in the UK, in the late 1970s, the system was already in difficulty. The two-tier grammar school / secondary modern system, introduced after the war with a promise of secondary education for everyone, had been abandoned, mainly because it had failed to give the children in the secondary-modern schools any form of useful education or training, trapping them in low-paid jobs after they left school. It had been largely replaced by comprehensive schools, which were not supposed to have any form of selection process at the entry point. In practice, however, the comprehensive schools had changed very little: a relatively small percentage of young people in the UK went to comprehensive schools in affluent, middle-class areas, or to grammar schools, which continued to exist in some areas, or to private schools, and a significant proportion of them gained academic qualifications that allowed them to go to university. Most children, however, went to schools that achieved very poor academic results; pupils that attended them had little chance of going to university, or moving up the social scale through gaining a well-paid job, but also did not receive any meaningful form of training for the type of work that they might eventually find themselves doing. Thus, the boys that I was teaching were quite legitimately able to ask me (and the other teachers) why they ought to co-operate, in view of the fact that their parents, and, in some cases, their grandparents had not learnt anything that had been of any use to them when they had attended secondary school.

Perhaps if it had just been up to me, my colleagues, the pupils, and their families, we would have been able to come up with some answers, and re-organised things so that the pupils became engaged in more meaningful activities. But even back then the views of the people who were actually in the classroom counted for very little; decisions about children’s education were being made elsewhere. These decisions found their way down to us through a chain of command, which started somewhere in the corridors of government, and went via local education authorities, examination boards, university entrance panels, school inspectors, head teachers, deputy head teachers, and heads of departments. Whereas, at a local level, it was obvious that the system had to be made more human, the decisions that were actually taken had the effect of taking away from classroom teachers the little room for manoeuvre they still had, and forced them to comply with a standardised programme, irrespective of whether it was effective or not. I stopped teaching in the state-funded school system around the time that a national curriculum was introduced, and since then testing, school league tables, targets, and points systems for schools have all been introduced. The system has become steadily more authoritarian in the sense that it has become more centralised; deliberately trying to make all children do the same thing at the same time, not making any allowance for the dynamics of each particular group, or the individual requirements of each child.

Part of the reason for this can be ascribed to the deep-rooted association between schools and the original campaign to improve levels of literacy. Schools are credited with being the main instrument responsible for teaching children to read and write, first in Europe and America, and then around the world. According to popular belief, early schools were often extremely authoritarian, making liberal use of corporal punishment, and not tolerating any dissent or disruptive behaviour from the pupils. Reading and writing is still regarded as being of unequivocal benefit, justifying almost any means to bring it about, and, as a further advantage, the authoritarian nature of the early schools was seen as a way of preparing people for the structured nature of work and employment in the newly-industrialising world.

These beliefs have become so ingrained that whenever any shortcomings are perceived in the education system, it is automatically assumed that they are due to insufficient regulation, and that they can be resolved by more schooling, and tighter controls. But what if the success of the early schools was not due to their authoritarian methods, but to something else?

When they were having their most striking successes, schools were not under the control of central government, but were still rooted in the community, receiving their funding from local institutions; most children were living in close-knit, extended families, school hours were short, children spent more time outdoors, and technology had had relatively little impact on everyday life. Children were in a situation in which everyone wanted them to learn to read; it was a clear goal, and when they achieved it, they received praise at home, and from everyone else in their community. The disciplined structure of the classroom was only one, relatively small, element in lives dominated by close family, relatives, nature, useful daily chores, and friends. Rather than concluding that an authoritarian approach to education works, it would be more logical to deduce that the warmth of the community helped to mitigate the coldness of the early classrooms, allowing children to acquire the reading skills that their parents did not have.

With this in mind, it seems reasonable to ask whether classroom-based education methods have had any other successes over the past one hundred and fifty years, apart from the initial increase in literacy. In fact, the way that schools have developed is a tacit admission that, for most people, they have not really worked at all; most of us studied mathematics, science, at least one foreign language, history, and other subjects for several years when we were at school – but the underlying assumption underpinning the school system is that we will not have grasped these subjects sufficiently to be able to pass them on to our children, each new generation is required to go to school to learn them all over again. This is in contrast to the historical precedent of communities being able to pass on accumulated knowledge of farming, crafts, household management, and everything needed for survival, without the need for specialist teachers, and special institutions. If it is the case that children respond primarily to love and kindness, and do not learn when in an impersonal and coercive environment, then it could be said that our education system set off in the wrong direction more or less at its inception.

In addition to the consequences that this has for each one of us on a personal level – we might not be as well educated as we think we are – it also has consequences for society as a whole. For example, it is not feasible for a society to value freedom, and protect the freedom of its citizens, when there is a lack of freedom in education, and children are taught to submit to authority from a young age, no matter how unreasonable it is in its demands.

The Consequences of an Education System that does not Encourage People to Think for Themselves